The best books of 2016 include those that take a closer look at U.S.-Russia relations during the Cold War and perestroika, enabling readers to better understand the current Putin era.
Book about U.S. President-elect Donald Trump Black Swan, Political Biography of Donald Trump and a book about Russian President Vladimir Putin are on a display in the Moscow House of Books in Moscow, Russia. Photo: AP
Why did the Cold War end? Was the primary cause external, the result of economic and military pressure applied on the U.S.S.R. by the West? Or was the cause internal, the result of the Soviet people’s critical reassessment of their economic and political system? Did America win the Cold War, or did the U.S.S.R. voluntarily reform itself out of Communism?
Those questions have surprising relevance for the current era, with relations between Russia and the West sliding back into another period of Cold War-like frostiness. In short, the question of what happened at the end of the first Cold War has practical implications for top policymakers.
If the West already defeated the Soviet Union once, then the current regime of sanctions should be maintained and tightened. But if the Soviet system came to its end because the Russian people realized the need for reform, then the West’s confrontational stance towards Russia is probably counterproductive, and a reasoned and open dialogue would be more effective.
The books selected as the best of 2016 help readers understand what happened at the end of the first Cold War, and how the current period of geopolitical confrontation is different, and in some ways, more complex and dangerous.
The first selection on the 2016 list is a book by Arkady Ostrovsky, a long-time writer at the Economist who looks at how the Cold War ended. The books by renowned foreign policy experts Robert Legvold, Dmitri Trenin and Bobo Lo look at Russia’s foreign policy, and the nature of the current standoff between the West and Russia.
Since maintaining a dialogue between Russia and the West requires that Russia remain open to criticism, books by Russian opposition leaders Gary Kasparov and Alexei Navalny are included on the list. The book by Charles Clover of the Financial Times looks at the important issue of nationalism. And last but not least, the list closes with a book about the success of Cold War artistic diplomacy, a reminder that even in the darkest times of the 1950s and 1960s, the United States and the U.S.S.R. found a way to keep the dialogue open.
By Arkady Ostrovsky (New York: Viking, 2015)
Arkady Ostrovsky has been writing about Russia for many years, and he personally knows many Russian political actors, including the late Boris Nemtsov. The news of Nemtsov’s death opens the book, providing a tragic context to this first-hand recollection of the intellectual and political drama in the waning days of the Soviet Union and the early years of the new Russia.
The book brings to life the intellectual and ideological debates that raged in Soviet society, where the need for reform was increasingly clear by the mid-1980s. How to reconcile the changing political and economic reality, including the dark pages of Stalinism, with the intellectual tenets of Marxism was a key issue that bewildered the Soviet leadership.
Gorbachev played a key role in the perestroika era, but many other forward-thinking Soviet leaders, including Alexander Yakovlev, who is often referred to as “the godfather of Glasnost,” assisted him. The book wades through the vicissitudes of the 1980s and the 1990s, and describes the arrival of Vladimir Putin on the Russian political scene.
Probably because of the page limit imposed by the publisher, the book then ends rather abruptly with an empowered essay about recent events, including the crisis in Ukraine. This is unfortunate, for the reader would surely like to see the author’s treatment of Putin’s presidency, which Ostrovsky had covered extensively at the Economist.
By Robert Legvold (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2016)
Robert Legvold, professor emeritus at Columbia University, purposefully called his book Return to Cold War, not Return to the Cold War to emphasize that the situation today is very different from the standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union in the 20th century.
The frosty turn in the relationship in 2014 resembles the sharp deterioration of the relationships that the U.S. and U.S.S.R. experienced in 1948, but the world no longer faces the ideological difference between the two political systems, or the threat of nuclear Armageddon. But these differences do not make today’s situation less dangerous.
The book raises many issues, of which the most fundamental one is that of trust. The first Cold War ended, in part, because Mikhail Gorbachev trusted George H.W. Bush and his Secretary of State James Baker, and the feeling was mutual.
Regaining trust is not easily done. The author convincingly argues that, instead of blaming the other side for the crisis, politicians should step back from short-term maneuverings over Ukraine or Syria and think of the long-term objectives of Russia and the U.S.
By Dmitri Trenin (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2016)
A long-time scholar with the Carnegie Moscow Center, Dmitri Trenin put out this book as a warning at a time when, in his view, the U.S. and Russia were on a collision course over Syria. The results of the U.S. election reduced the risk of a confrontation.
The bullet may have been dodged for now, but fundamental problems remain. The two nations have a high level of friction, and competition between Russia and the U.S. in the areas of geopolitics, cyberspace, and outer space is there to stay.
The situation is especially dangerous because recent events have shown that bold actions pay off. The rules of the first Cold War provide little guidance because the present situation is unprecedented. Cool-headed pragmatism is required to avoid escalation. Trenin suggests that this tense situation will last for a few years.
By Bobo Lo (London, UK: Royal Institute of International Affairs, 2015)
This book is a detailed commentary on the Russian foreign policy approved by President Putin in 2013. That policy reflects Russia’s belief that it is part of European civilization, and that we are now in the period of the creation of a new multi-polar world. Russia believes that it is the historic West’s resistance to its decline that is the cause of growing international tensions.
It is a thought-provoking book, which also shows how quickly things can change. The author identifies the diminishing value of military might as a key shift. It is consistent with Russia’s version of foreign policy from 2013 – the year before events in Ukraine unfolded with military implications. In November 2016, Vladimir Putin signed a new, updated version of Russian foreign policy, which stated that military force can be decisive. This change does not distract from the value of the book but it does highlight the unpredictability of the current state of global affairs.
By Gary Kasparov (New York: Perseus Books, 2015)
Gary Kasparov may be a scourge of pro-Kremlin politicians, but his voice is so influential in the West that it surely needs to be heard. Kasparov’s preferred method of dealing with his opponents is violent attack. This is true on the chessboard, and it is true in this book. He does not pull his punches, and even when he seems to give up a point, it is just a trap.
“Putin is no Hitler” he concedes on page two. But just before you breathe a sigh of relief, several lines later he continues, “Hitler was not Hitler in 1937 or 1938.” His book is a wake-up call to the fact that Russia and the West are at war.
But the book presents less of an argument than a record of Kasparov’s unrelenting fight against the Kremlin. It is a story of man vs. the system, and it contains many dramatic descriptions of Kasparov appearing at various critical junctions and making a difference. His points are forcefully made, but one may question the accuracy of many of his recollections.
At one point, Kasparov says that he won the liberal opposition presidential primary in 2008. It is hard to agree with that, since the 2008 dogfight between Kasyanov, Kasparov, Nemtsov, Limonov and a few other opposition figures produced no united candidate.
Kasparov also barely mentions the 2011 initiative to create an opposition party that was derailed because of opposition infighting. In the end, this book seems like the record of a chess match with a few critical moves omitted. But it is good to have a summary of what is probably the most critical work of the Russian political system an opposition leader has written.
By Mikhail Zygar (New York: Perseus Books, 2016)
Mikhail Zygar’s book became a bestseller in Russia before it was translated into English. Now English readers can access the book that was written for a Russian audience by someone who is very close to the scene, the founding editor-in-chief of Russia’s main independent TV news channel Dozhd (“Rain”).
It is a chaotic picture where people seek power, pursue alliances, change loyalties, and generally simply try to get ahead. This may all seem rather novel to a Western reader who likes to view Russia as a controlled autocracy, but for people who live in Russia, the tone of this book rings unmistakably true.Zygar has access to many Russian political actors, and the book is based on a series of interviews with people who have been impactful in shaping the Kremlin’s policy ever since Vladimir Putin took power in 2000. The book is a page-turner. It is a collection of lively, occasionally scandalous anecdotes, some well-known, some fresh, which collectively provide a compelling picture about the messy way in which Russian policy is created and conducted.
Read the Q&A with Mikhail Zygar: "Understanding Russian politics, without the conspiracy theories"
By Charles Clover (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016)
By his own admission, Charles Clover, the head of the Financial Times in Russia, got interested in the topic of Russian nationalism because he was convinced that Russian nationalists were linked to the Kremlin. However, his conclusion was that there is no direct link. This explains the historic focus in the book that provides a study of the origins of the Eurasian idea, including the role of the émigré white movement, and the influences of Lev Gumilev.
Clover deals with a subject that carries critical importance, and he provides an important contribution to the discussion. But the reader should keep a few contextual points in mind. It is true that the notion that Russia needs a special national idea has been getting traction, especially after Alexander Prokhanov, Alexander Dugin and a few other conservative thinkers organized the Isborsky Сlub in 2012 as an alternative to the pro-Western Valdai club.
But equally importantly, Russia has actively been promoting the notion of a multi-ethnic and multi-racial identity, defining the Russian people on the basis of shared values, culture and language, not blood. Russian nationalism, therefore, is much closer to America’s, and is considerably more inclusive than the ethnic nationalism of Europe that is currently on the rise.
By Alexei Navalny and Adam Michnik (UK: Egret Press, 2016)
Before he became the bona fide leader of the Russian liberal opposition, Alexey Navalny was one of the people who whipped up the nationalist cause in order to promote his career. Navalny started as a low-level functionary in the liberal Yabloko party, switched to nationalism to gain scandalous fame, and eventually developed sufficient credibility as a critic of the Kremlin to run for the office of Mayor of Moscow. At the end of 2016, he announced his attention to run for the presidency in Russia in 2018.
Over the past three years, Navalny has mellowed and has gained sufficient gravitas to appear on stage with Adam Michnik, a legendary leader of Poland’s Solidarity movement. The book is a record of the public discourse between Navalny and Michnik on numerous topics, including Michnik’s experience with Solidarity, and Navalny’s views on corruption, oligarchs, media and the church. Navalny is likely to remain on the Russian political stage for a long time, and this book is a good record of his evolving political position.
By Kati Marton (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016)
One can argue about the role of the security services in Russia today, but there is no argument about the KGB’s importance in Soviet history. The story of Noel Field, a Harvard-educated American who became a Soviet spy and a loyal Communist party member is less known than the story of someone like Kim Philby, in part because Field’s activities took place in Hungary, on the fringes of the Soviet bloc. But the issues that this spy case raises are universal.
The Soviet Union was effective in recruiting agents because of the deep intellectual appeal of the Communist idea. Those who condemn the Soviet Union today forget that for many years and for many people, it was a source of political and economic hope. The choice between the capitalist West and the Communist East is clear for us today. It was much less clear for Noel Field and his contemporaries. Spies like Philby or Field normally did not leave behind confessional diaries, and we can judge what they really thought only by their actions. Very often, their choices are hard to explain, and in the end, the true nature of the book’s protagonist remains elusive.
By Nigel Cliff (New York: HarperCollins, 2016)
The piano prodigy Van Cliburn was one of the most famous Americans in the Soviet Union. The images of the young Texan on stage when he won the 1958 International Tchaikovsky Competition are iconic, as are the photos of him being embraced by Nikita Khrushchev. Cliburn died in 2013. He saw the Cold War end, and he met every single Russian leader, including Vladimir Putin. Cliburn was admired both in the U.S. and in Russia as someone whose art contributed to the peaceful resolution of the Cold War.
Both art and culture were important dimensions of U.S –Soviet relations. It was both the continuation of the ideological competition, but also a means of maintaining the dialogue during the darkest times. Four years later after Cliburn’s triumph, for example, the Bolshoi Ballet came on tour in America a week after the Cuban Missile Crisis. During the start of perestroika, it is musicians like Rostropovich who often led the way in breaking the ideological ice.
Not everyone believes, then and now, that art diplomacy can stay above politics. During the Cold War, there was an understandable impulse to view art through the lens of ideology. Soviet bureaucrats worried about the depraving influence of jazz and Hollywood movies, and American foreign policy operatives fretted about the subversive powers of the Bolshoi Ballet.
Van Cliburn’s story is so refreshing because the Soviet audience fell in love with an American pianist spontaneously, without any clandestine plan or any ideological purpose, by Americans or by Russians. The purity of motives makes the Cliburn story both unique and inspiring.